Here in Nairobi, Kenya I realized that it takes an average of an hour and half to get to my internship (writing for Up Magazine). If traffic is especially terrible, 2 hours. Taking the matatu labeled “Banana” and numbered 106 into town I then take #48A to my final destination. There and back again is a total of four matatus in a day, but only $5 to commute. For scale, my internship is about 15 kilometers away from my home, and the amount of time on these bad traffic days I could very feasibly be in Chicago from my school in Kalamazoo, Michigan (236 kilometers). The bigger cost than the 5 bucks are all the unique anxieties that arrive in this 14-person capacity van—which is actually packed with 16 to 18 strangers. Rarely would you find someone who isn’t black, as most muzungus (foreigners) take their own cars to work. Or, like in my neighborhood, they walk or bike to their respective embassies. Car accidents are a biggie as traffic rules are virtually absent, but since cars are packed bumper to bumper, impact is minimal. The BBC reported that the deadly accidents in Nairobi are the head-on collisions. When you get used to the claustrophobic flow, some unique instances arise: the van’s sliding door flew off one day, and at another instant a billboard fell onto the highway. Meanwhile, when you’re really backed up in traffic, the homeless children crowd outside to grab you for money and empathy. Thieves lurk during these bright mornings to snitch your phone—leaving you stranded.
Matatu conductor gaining new passengers.
Nairobi is rated as one of the worst cities to commute, which only increase stress, anger, frustration, and impaired performance at work or school. Despite this, my stress is counterbalanced by plentiful mango juice, an internship with a magazine that gives me actual work, and a pesky new cigarette habit. With all of this said, eight out of the past eight days I have been asked if I am Chinese, able to speak English, or the worst so far: having a crowd of Kenyans yell “ching chong” from across the street for as long as I am in eye sight.
In the United States we possess a unique gift: someone down everyone’s family tree was an immigrant. Unless, of course, you’re of Native American heritage, then we owe you a great apology and your land back. Americans are an eclectic food dish of mixed cultures; call us a melting pot, a salad, or a buffet. In practice racism exists to atrocious degrees (one quick instance: a white man in a suburb outside Detroit shot a black girl who was wandering after her car crashed), but America was also the “New World” and now represents every ethnicity or nationality.
As an American, I do not add hyphens to my identity. Though my mother immigrated from Japan, I do not call myself an “Asian-American.” I just see myself as an American. I’m a committed voter, I drink only American beer, I was on a constitutional debate team (after debating in the House of Representatives we made top 5 in the Nation!), I play an American electric guitar (Fender Telecaster), the only sport I can bear to watch is baseball, and I love jazz. If anything, after arriving in Kenya my Midwestern accent became washed with a slow drawl, to which my neighbor, a minister for the Danish embassy, exclaimed, “Your accent! You’re American.” Since arriving in Kenya I became forced to consciously recognize my Japanese heritage—though everyone here assumes I’m Chinese. When taking my bitter ego out of the equation, this makes sense: the only Asian presence in Kenya besides the Indians are the Chinese who are here for a business or developing the area. Also, I had no ability to tell apart the tribes and ethnicities of Kenyans apart until recently. Most people who’ve approached me about my heritage have been both curious and courteous. Outside our university a Sudanese man interrupted my tall blonde friend, Bryan, and I at a smoking circle: “Excuse me, can you two understand each other?” he asked, bewildered, “because it appears that you are Chinese and he is Dutch.” Wrong on both accounts, but hey, he was a good vibe and he was legitimately confused. We immediately laughed it off, because most moments in life should be laughed off.
Yet, hearing “ching chong” shouted at me incessantly or refusing to believe that I am something else other than a straight import from China or saying “all of them [Asians] look the same” infuriates me after exhausting matatu rides in the equatorial sun.
I am an American, damnit. A patriot. A Yankee. Cut me and watch the red, white, and blue blood spark like July fireworks.